For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Sir Isaac Newton called it his Third Law of Motion.
The CIA calls it “blowback.”
As the late historian of empire and one-time consultant to the CIA, Chalmers Johnson, explained in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, blowback is “a metaphor for the unintended consequences of the U.S. government’s international activities that have been kept secret from the American people.”
Time and again, the United States and its allies have intervened in a faraway conflict, typically in the Muslim-majority Middle East; they’ve dropped some bombs, killed some “bad guys,” and then declared “mission accomplished.” Time and again, these interventions have ended up resulting in bloodshed and conflict later down the line — often on U.S. or Western soil. “Historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States,” the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board observed back in 1997.
Yet U.S. and Western politicians avert their eyes from this data and this correlation; acts of terror are explained away as “random,” “mindless,” and, perhaps most disingenuously of all, “unprovoked.” The public, either unfamiliar with secret operations carried out by the U.S. military or intelligence services, or uninformed about the brutal nature of the foreign wars fought in their name, tend to buy into this fantasy of an “innocent” America hated and attacked by hordes of “mad” Muslims.
In a series of short films for The Intercept, launching today, I set out to examine key examples of blowback in greater detail — beginning with the issue of CIA drone strikes — and explore how foreign policy decisions by the U.S. and its allies often produce terrorist blowback and so-called unintended consequences.
Take the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini and the explosion of Iranian anti-Americanism in the late 1970s. As Sen. Bernie Sanders, of all people, noted in a Democratic presidential debate in 2016, few Americans are aware that the Islamic Revolution of 1979 against the dictatorship of the Shah was blowback from the 1953 CIA-orchestrated coup that removed the elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, from office. In fact, the term “blowback” was first coined by the CIA in the wake of, and in reference to, the secret plot against Mossadegh.
“Possibilities of blowback against the United States should always be in the back of the minds of all CIA officers involved in this type of operation. Few, if any, operations are as explosive as this type.” This quote appeared in an internal CIA lessons-learned report on the 1953 coup. However, few lessons were actually learned by the agency or its political masters. The short-term success of the coup — carried out by the CIA just six years after it was founded under President Harry Truman — prompted politicians and spooks alike to embark on a series of covert and not-so-covert actions, many of which would end up backfiring on the U.S. in the long run.
Remember, for instance, how the CIA poured millions of dollars and thousands of Stinger missiles into Afghanistan in the 1980s to support the “jihad” against the Soviet Union? Many of those U.S.-armed and U.S.-funded fighters would later join Mullah Omar’s Taliban or Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and turn their “jihad” against the West. How’s that for blowback?
And there are plenty of other examples aside from the case of Afghanistan and bin Laden. Take drone strikes. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama deployed drones to Pakistan as part of their counterterror strategy, without taking into account how much “drone strikes are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one,” to quote top U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Terrorists such as Faisal Shahzad, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev all cited the civilian casualties from drone strikes among their litany of anti-American complaints. How’s that for blowback?
In 2003, the United States invaded and occupied Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands in the process; disbanded the Iraqi army overnight while opening fire on peaceful protesters; tortured and radicalized Iraqis in prisons and detention centers built by Saddam Hussein … and then expressed surprise when the Islamic State appeared on the scene. How’s that for blowback?
U.S. allies have been equally short-sighted and self-destructive. The Egyptians and the Jordanians tortured men such as Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to try and break them. It didn’t work — and, in fact, helped to do the opposite. Zawahiri went on to join bin Laden in creating Al Qaeda while Zarqawi founded the precursor organization to ISIS. How’s that for blowback?
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Israelis backed and funded the Palestinian Islamists who would later become Hamas, as a way of dividing and ruling over the Palestinians and, especially, undermining Yasser Arafat’s secular Fatah movement. Since the 1990s, however, Hamas has killed far more Israeli civilians than Arafat or Fatah ever did. How’s that for blowback?
In 2011, the British government led the charge to topple Col. Moammar Gadhafi from power in Libya, backing jihadi rebel groups and turning a blind eye to angry young men from the U.K. going out to fight against the regime in Tripoli. One of them, a British 23-year-old of Libyan descent named Salman Abedi, who allegedly made contact with ISIS fighters in the chaos of post-war Libya, returned to the U.K. and blew himself up at a Manchester concert, killing 22 people. How’s that for blowback?
The inescapable truth for my six blowback films is that you cannot bomb, kill, invade, occupy, and torture, and then expect no pushback, no retaliation, no blowback. Nor can you cynically arm or fund extremist groups to fight your “official enemy” and then assume those extremist groups won’t one day turn on you or your allies. Actions have consequences; actions, to quote Newton, have equal and opposite reactions.
These days, the need to address and acknowledge the contentious issue of blowback has taken on an even greater urgency as the Trump administration escalates and expands every single conflict that it inherited from the Obama administration. Ramp up drone strikes? Tick. Drop bigger bombs in Afghanistan? Tick. Kill more Iraqi and Syrian civilians via airstrikes? Tick.
Whether or not Trump is clinically insane, his foreign policy, like that of his Democratic and Republican predecessors, is the very definition of madness — doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.
Will they ever learn? Or will they continue to endanger us all?
This series of videos was written by Mehdi Hasan, executive produced by Lauren Feeney, and produced by Dina Sayedahmed, Omar Kasrawi, and Nicole Salazar.
“Your brother created ISIS,” college student Ivy Ziedrich told a startled Jeb Bush after a town hall meeting in Reno, Nevada, in May 2015. The then-Republican presidential hopeful tried to defend his elder sibling, former President George W. Bush, by blaming the rise of the Islamic State on Barack Obama, “because Americans pulled back” from Iraq in 2011.
It sounds a bit conspiratorial, right? Calling Dubya the creator of ISIS? The reality, however, is that Ziedrich’s accusation wasn’t far off the mark.
Had it not been for Bush’s catastrophic decision to invade and occupy Iraq in 2003, in defiance of international law, the world’s most feared terrorist group would not exist today. ISIS is blowback.
In this week’s episode of my six-part series on blowback, I examine the three ways in which Bush’s misadventure in Mesopotamia helped birth a group that the U.S. now considers to be one of the biggest threats to both U.S. national security and Middle East peace.
First, foreign military occupations tend to radicalize local populations and breed violent insurgencies. Take Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Or Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
In Iraq, the U.S. morphed from heroic liberators into brutal occupiers within a matter of weeks. In Fallujah, which would later become an ISIS stronghold, U.S. troops opened fire on a crowd of peaceful protesters in April 2003, killing and wounding dozens of Iraqis.
The shootings, the torture, the general chaos, all helped drive thousands of Iraqis from the minority Sunni community into the arms of radical groups led by brutal gangsters, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq, formed in 2004 to fight U.S. troops and their local allies, was a precursor organization to … ISIS.
Second, in May 2003, in a criminally stupid and reckless move, the U.S. occupying authorities disbanded the Iraqi army. That’s right: The U.S. made more than half a million well-armed and well-trained Iraqi troops unemployed overnight. No less an authority than Gen. Colin Powell, Bush’s secretary of state and America’s former top soldier, would later describe those jobless soldiers as “prime recruits for insurgency.”
In recent years, many of the top commanders in ISIS have been identified as former senior officers in Saddam Hussein’s army. Coincidence?
Third, the U.S. military detained tens of thousands of Iraqis, many of them noncombatants, at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, where imprisoned jihadis were able to not only radicalize new recruits in plain sight, but also plan future operations and attacks. “Many of us at Camp Bucca were concerned that instead of just holding detainees, we had created a pressure cooker for extremism,” compound Cmdr. James Skylar Gerrond would later remark.
One former Bucca detainee, incidentally, was none other than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Yes, the self-proclaimed caliph and leader of ISIS who, according to Iraqi terrorism expert Hisham al-Hashimi, “absorbed the jihadist ideology and established himself among the big names” while at Bucca.
To be clear, then, ISIS is blowback from the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. And don’t just take my word for it. Listen to David Kilcullen, a former adviser to both Gen. David Petraeus and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, considered to be one of the world’s leading counter-insurgency experts. “We have to recognize that a lot of the problem is of our own making,” Kilcullen told Channel 4 News in March 2016. “There, undeniably, would be no ISIS if we hadn’t invaded Iraq.”
Why can’t Iran have a secular, democratic government? It’s a question Americans often ask of their longstanding Middle East adversary — especially when they see images of anti-regime protesters taking to the streets of major Iranian cities and towns to demand greater freedom.
Unlike citizens of the Islamic Republic, however, citizens of the United States tend to have short memories. The historical reality is that Iran did have a secular, democratic government, led by Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh between 1951 and 1953 — but Mossadegh was removed from power in a coup organized and funded by the CIA and Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6.
With a handful of exceptions — Madeleine Albright in 2000, Barack Obama in 2009 and 2015 — most mainstream U.S. politicians have little to say about any of this sordid history. In Washington, D.C., Iranian hostility toward the U.S. has long been treated as inexplicable and irrational, while the CIA’s role in the 1953 coup — which set off a chain of events that resulted in the rise of Iran’s ayatollahs and the Islamic Revolution of 1979 — has vanished into a memory hole.
It was left to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, of all people, to remind Americans of the catastrophic consequences of that coup in a televised debate with Hillary Clinton during the Democratic presidential primaries in February 2016:
Mossadegh back in 1953. Nobody knows who Mossadegh was. Democratically elected prime minister of Iran. He was overthrown by British and American interests because he threatened oil interests of the British. And as a result of that, the Shah of Iran came in, terrible dictator, and as a result of that, you had the Iranian Revolution coming in, and that’s where we are today. Unintended consequences.
What Sanders called “unintended consequences,” the CIA calls “blowback.”
In fact, as I explain in this week’s episode of my six-part video series on blowback, the CIA first coined the term in the wake of Operation Ajax — the agency’s codename for the coup against Mossadegh. “Possibilities of blowback against the United States should always be in the back of the minds of all CIA officers involved in this type of operation,” noted an internal CIA lessons-learned report on Mossadegh’s fall in 1954. “Few, if any, operations are as explosive as this type.”
Yet the U.S. government never got out of the regime change business in the subsequent decades, and continued to orchestrate coups, assassinate foreign leaders, topple elected governments, and invade sovereign nations. Even today, the hawks in the Trump administration are bent on changing the government in Tehran. Again. Have they learned nothing? Consider the verdict of Michael Morell, former deputy director of the CIA, on the consequences of a U.S.-backed regime change effort inside the Islamic Republic: “Not only are you unlikely to be successful, but you are likely to have huge blowback.”
There’s that word again: blowback. But is anyone in this administration even listening?
Does torture lead to terror? Has the decadeslong abuse of political prisoners across the Muslim-majority world — not to mention in CIA black sites, U.S. detention facilities in Iraq, and the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay — fueled radicalization and extremism? Or is it a coincidence that some of the major figures in the jihadi movement — Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb; Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri; Al Qaeda in Iraq founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — were all victims of horrific torture?
Lawrence Wright, one of the world’s leading authorities on Al Qaeda and author of “The Looming Tower,” doesn’t think so. He has said that the torture the founders of Al Qaeda & Co. endured “is what really gave them an appetite for revenge. And the bloodletting that is so characteristic of Al Qaeda … I think it was born in the humiliation that those men felt in those Egyptian prisons.”
As I point out in the latest episode of my six-part video series on blowback, torture is also a recruiting sergeant for terrorist groups. It allows them to act as a vehicle for angry and outraged young men and helps bolster their propaganda war against people in power. For example, Cherif Kouachi, one of the brothers who carried out the horrific attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris in 2015, said it was “everything I saw on the television, the torture at Abu Ghraib prison, all that which motivated me.”
And it wasn’t just Kouachi. A State Department memo leaked by WikiLeaks in 2009 noted how “following publication of the first Abu Ghraib photos, Saudi authorities arrested 250 individuals trying to leave Saudi Arabia to join extremist groups in Afghanistan.”
From Abu Ghraib in Iraq to Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, the U.S. has engaged in brutal and violent abuse toward detainees suspected of terrorism — despite the fact that such brutality and abuse is what may have motivated many of those detainees to begin with. Listen to Gen. David Petraeus, former head of U.S. Central Command and former director of the CIA: “I think that whenever we have, perhaps, taken expedient measures, they have turned around and bitten us in the backside,” he said on Meet The Press back in 2010. “Abu Ghraib and other situations like that are non-biodegradables. They don’t go away. The enemy continues to beat you with them like a stick.”
Has anyone in the Trump administration paid attention to such warnings, though? Or are they destined to repeat the same mistakes (and crimes) of the George W. Bush era? While running for president, Donald Trump made it clear he was a fan of torture and saw no ethical or legal obstacles to waterboarding and the rest. Then, after his election, he said his new defense secretary-designate, Gen. James Mattis, had persuaded him against such practices. Yet, in his State of the Union speech in January, Trump won cheers from the Republican legislators in the audience when he announced that he had “just signed an order directing Secretary Mattis to re-examine our military detention policy and to keep open the detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay.”
So Gitmo is staying open for business — with all of the torture and abuses associated with it. Perhaps, though, the president should have a word with former U.S. Air Force Officer Matthew Alexander, who was in charge of an interrogation team in Iraq and is author of the book, “How to Break a Terrorist.”
“The longer it stays open,” Alexander wrote in 2012, referring to Guantánamo Bay, “the more cost it will have in U.S. lives.”
What do you know about Hamas?
That it’s sworn to destroy Israel? That it’s a terrorist group, proscribed both by the United States and the European Union? That it rules Gaza with an iron fist? That it’s killed hundreds of innocent Israelis with rocket, mortar, and suicide attacks?
But did you also know that Hamas — which is an Arabic acronym for “Islamic Resistance Movement” — would probably not exist today were it not for the Jewish state? That the Israelis helped turn a bunch of fringe Palestinian Islamists in the late 1970s into one of the world’s most notorious militant groups? That Hamas is blowback?
This isn’t a conspiracy theory. Listen to former Israeli officials such as Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Segev, who was the Israeli military governor in Gaza in the early 1980s. Segev later told a New York Times reporter that he had helped finance the Palestinian Islamist movement as a “counterweight” to the secularists and leftists of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Fatah party, led by Yasser Arafat (who himself referred to Hamas as “a creature of Israel.”)
“The Israeli government gave me a budget,” the retired brigadier general confessed, “and the military government gives to the mosques.”
“Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel’s creation,” Avner Cohen, a former Israeli religious affairs official who worked in Gaza for more than two decades, told the Wall Street Journal in 2009. Back in the mid-1980s, Cohen even wrote an official report to his superiors warning them not to play divide-and-rule in the Occupied Territories, by backing Palestinian Islamists against Palestinian secularists. “I … suggest focusing our efforts on finding ways to break up this monster before this reality jumps in our face,” he wrote.
They didn’t listen to him. And Hamas, as I explain in the fifth installment of my short film series for The Intercept on blowback, was the result. To be clear: First, the Israelis helped build up a militant strain of Palestinian political Islam, in the form of Hamas and its Muslim Brotherhood precursors; then, the Israelis switched tack and tried to bomb, besiege, and blockade it out of existence.
In the past decade alone, Israel has gone to war with Hamas three times — in 2009, 2012, and 2014 — killing around 2,500 Palestinian civilians in Gaza in the process. Meanwhile, Hamas has killed far more Israeli civilians than any secular Palestinian militant group. This is the human cost of blowback.
“When I look back at the chain of events, I think we made a mistake,” David Hacham, a former Arab affairs expert in the Israeli military who was based in Gaza in the 1980s, later remarked. “But at the time, nobody thought about the possible results.”
They never do, do they?
On May 22, 2017, Salman Abedi blew himself up at a pop concert in Manchester, England, killing 22 people. It was the worst terrorist attack in Manchester’s history — and the worst in the U.K. since the London bombings of 2005. The youngest victim was just 8 years old.
You remember Libya, right? It was the military intervention of 2011, launched by U.S. President Barack Obama, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy under a NATO umbrella and with the backing of a U.N. Security Council resolution, which was supposed to prevent Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi from carrying out a massacre in the coastal city of Benghazi. The mission, however, soon morphed into regime change. NATO forces intervened on the side of Libya’s rebels who eventually captured Gadhafi in the desert, sodomized him with a bayonet, and shot him dead. “We came, we saw, he died,” laughed then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Hilarious! But as I explain in this sixth and final film of my series on blowback for The Intercept, there was nothing funny about post-Gadhafi Libya, which quickly descended into violence and chaos as rival militias, including jihadi groups, fought for power and influence. As an official report by a select committee of the British Parliament later acknowledged, “The possibility that militant extremist groups would attempt to benefit from the rebellion should not have been the preserve of hindsight.”
Indeed. NATO member governments were well aware of what kind of extreme and violent groups they were backing on the ground. Some members of the Canadian Air Force, which flew 10 percent of the missions during NATO’s Libyan campaign, privately joked among themselves that they had become “Al Qaeda’s air force.”
Yet the British government, which cracked down on British citizens who went out to fight in Syria or Iraq, looked the other way at those who went out to fight in Libya. One U.K. citizen of Libyan descent, who had been under house arrest due to concerns that he might join violent extremists in Iraq, said he was “allowed to go [to Libya], no questions asked.” In fact, so many Libyan exiles went out to fight the Gadhafi regime from Manchester alone that today, there is even a mural in Tripoli to commemorate them. One of those exiles was Ramadan Abedi, a member of the Al Qaeda-aligned Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and his 22-year-old son … Salman.
Former friends and acquaintances of Salman Abedi say he returned to the U.K. from Libya a “completely different guy.” The one-time partygoer, who took drugs and enjoyed a drink, came back an angry young man who had fought against Gadhafi and, allegedly, signed up with the Islamic State. (ISIS would later claim the Manchester attack.)
Remember: To explain how Abedi became a bomber is not to excuse him. He is responsible for a grotesque act of mass murder; the merciless killing of innocent kids. But who helped him find likeminded, hate-filled individuals with whom to train and fight? Who provided him with the battlefield on which he was recruited and radicalized? How did the Libya he travelled to end up becoming a haven for ISIS?
“Enough is enough,” said British Prime Minister Theresa May, in the wake of the London Bridge terror attack, which occurred just a month after the Manchester bombing. “When it comes to taking on extremism and terrorism, things need to change.”
Yes, they do. How about we stop allying with and arming unsavory groups abroad? How about we quit the Middle East regime-change business? How about we stop pretending that our wars abroad don’t lead to blowback at home? The sooner we do so, the more innocent lives we might be able save.
This series of videos was written by Mehdi Hasan, executive produced by Lauren Feeney, and produced by Dina Sayedahmed, Omar Kasrawi, and Nicole Salazar.